Stake Land (2011)
March 30, 2012 1 Comment
Left orphaned when his parents are murdered by a lone vampire, Martin (Connor Paolo) is saved and adopted by a practised hunter known only as Mister (Nick Damici). With the supposedly untouched New Eden firmly in their sights, they set off across the remains of North America – careful to avoid the cities worst hit and the highways policed ruthlessly by neo-religious cults – in search of safety and salvation. When Mister kills a pair of rapists attempting to chase down a defenceless nun (Kelly McGillis), however, he unsuspectingly incurs the wrath of Jebedia Loven (Michael Cerveris), father of one of the boys and figurehead of a fundamentalist militia known as The Brotherhood.
There’s a fine line to be walked if your aim is to make a solid vampire movie, and as important as such considerations as tone and casting might undoubtedly be, another key indicator appears to be far more budgetary in nature. Too little money tends to result in distinctively Asylum fare, in which glowing eyes, cheap gimmicks and ridiculous violence attempt to compensate for the lack of production value; while too much money will most likely lead to sparkling vampires or a slayer played by Hugh Jackman and an automatic crossbow. Costing a modest $625000, Jim Mickle’s Stake Land strikes the perfect balance as a stripped back horror story that convinces without ever showing off.
Playing it straight for what feels like the first time in years, Stake Land is a vampire fable with no difference, a film which satisfies itself with the famed movie monster at its centre. Gone are the leather-clad Death Dealers, the acerbic post-modern witticisms and the romanticised vege-vampires, in their place an apparently neverending plague of vampiric mutants out for blood. Starved of religious overtones, this is one blood-sucking horde that the usual arsenal of crucifixes and holy water will not save you from, though, as Stake Land poses, that will not be through lack of trying. While the undead lurk in the shadows, it is the religious zealotry that will be society’s undoing.
Mickle might not be looking to dazzle you, but he is aiming to horrify you, and while Stake Land might seem unusually nuts and bolts to begin with it is an end to which he succeeds admirably. Whether its a drained baby, dropped from the rafters, or a practising nun’s serial rape, this is undoubtedly a film with bite; but rather than shocking for the sake of it with an endless array of embarrassing jump scares, Stake Land achieves this through atmospherics and the hopeless plight of its surviving characters. I must reiterate just how refreshingly traditional this approach is, while there have been a number of noteworthy vampire movies in the past few years – Let The Right One In, 30 Days of Night, Daybreakers – this is the first to lack a central conceit, be it a childhood romance, an Alaskan prison or an inverted society.
Nick Damici is absolutely fantastic as the no-nonsense Mister. A Kurt Russel-type, strong and silent, he stands his ground not only against the vampire plague, but also in terms of the extant pantheon of vampire slayers, making no less of an impression despite his lack of Blade’s abilities, Buffy’s Scoobies or Peter Vincent’s unquestionable style. While Damici’s clearly responsible for the film’s quotient of kick-ass, it is Connor Paolo who ultimately carries the film as slayer-in-training Martin. Robbed of his family, repeatedly beaten by vampires and forced to go through puberty with little more than a pack of erotic playing cards, Paolo brings an angst to the voice over and a quiet charisma to his performance that invites investment where Mister might rather discourage it.
While the film enraptures throughout, building through a carefully orchestrated mood to a truly satisfying climax, the film unfortunately falters in its dénouement. Left only to wrap up the final strands of the plot, a last minute introduction unsteadies the narrative and cheapens the conclusion for certain characters. Up until this point, however, Mickle nary puts a foot wrong, a few easily forgiveable conveniences ultimately paid off further down the line. It is the film’s bleakness, above its creature design or set-pieces, that impress the most, the director’s honourable priorities giving the film its unusual power.
Solidly crafted, expertly executed and acted almost to perfection, this is the vampire movie we have been waiting for. Although it might lack the world-building and effects of established franchises, it never punches above its weight, opting instead to make the most of what it has to hand. Plenty, it seems.